Chrysler Voyager rises to the challenge of New York City driving.

It's only natural that people react the way they do.

When they find out that I write about cars, they can envision me screaming down the road in some high-priced sports or luxury car -- one that I didn't have to pay for, but can have fun driving.

Okay, fine. That is part of the job, part of the time.

But then watch their faces as you remind them that being an auto writer also requires you drive vehicles like a minivan and their faces fall.

It's a natural reaction, unless you've driven the latest version of Chrysler's minivan.

Chrysler has sold more than 8 million minivans.

With an onslaught of competition from all automakers, Chrysler and its Dodge stablemates still account for over half the minivans sold since 1983 in the United States and currently hold about 40 percent of the minivan segment.

So, with all that success, what did they do for an encore?

Chrysler hasn't made wild, radical changes since this in not a market that accepts wild and radical. (GM found this out the hard way, first with their Dustbuster-styled minivans and now with the more radical Aztek, a minivan with a radical truck body.)

Chrysler has done much refinement and it shows, from the crisp handsomely updated styling to the improved feel of these vans.

Once again the vans are available in short wheelbase (Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Voyager) and extended wheelbase (Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country).

Short-wheelbase minivan engines range from a 2.4-liter 16-valve, 150-horsepower inline-four cylinder (base Voyager and Caravan SE) to a 3.3-liter OHV 180-horsepower V-6 (Voyager LX and Caravan Sport).

Opt for the long wheelbase and your choices increase. The 3.3 is standard on front-wheel-drive models (Town and Country LX and LXI and Grand Caravan Sport and ES) with a 3.8-liter 215-horsepower OHV V-6 standard on all-wheel-drive models (Town and Country LX AWD, LXI AWD, Ltd. AWD, Grand Caravan Sport AWD and ES AWD) as well as the Town and Country Ltd.

Got all that?

Actually, after spending the week in a short-wheelbase Chrysler Voyager, I wonder why one would need the longer wheelbase at all.

The model I drove was the upper trim level LX equipped with the 3.3-liter 180-horsepower V-6 and 4-speed automatic transmission. (If you opt for a Dodge, you can get Chrysler's Autostick, which can be shifted manually.) You can tell the Voyager from the more-expensive Town and Country by where the badge is located on the front grille. The Voyager's badge is mounted at the top of the egg-crate grille, while the Town and Country's is center-mounted.

A sharp crease runs along the body, giving the vehicle a taut appearance. It helps reduce the blobbiness that afflicted the looks of the previous generation. Still, as good as the styling was, the Voyager's dynamics were m ost pleasing.

I put this vehicle through its paces recently, transporting me and three fellow troublemakers into New York City for lunch at Sardi's with fellow car enthusiasts of the Madison Avenue Sports Car Driving and Chowder Society. No one was looking forward to a trip in a minivan, and I really wasn't looking forward to driving it. After all, driving into Mayor Giuliani-land requires eyes on all sides of your head and a vehicle that can cut and thrust with the best of them. A minivan didn't seem to fit the bill at all.

Surprise, surprise, surprise.

The OHV V-6 felt stronger than its 180-horsepower rating suggests. The automatic transmission shifted imperceptively, with a smoothness that impressed all who didn't feel it shifting. More importantly, steering was precise, with some road feel filtering through to the driver. Body lean was modest and bump absorption good. This made cutting through the thick of traffic easy, llowing me to easily cut off taxi cab limousines and matrons with large amounts of blue hair.

Stopping short, also a requirement of NYC-driving, was aided by the larger front disc/rear drum anti-lock brakes now installed, which along with increased pedal feel made this minivan mildly entertaining and athletic to drive.

It's modest length (189.1 inches) made it just the right size for New York. I was congratulated by fellow passengers on my driving skill, although some might just call it something else. They concluded that I have a future as a cabbie.

But even if you never drive into Manhattan, this van has all the creature comfort you'd want.

The dash is typical Chrysler, efficient with a bit of modern-retro style tossed in. The stylish black-on-white instrument cluster is large and easy to read. The center-dash stack houses a nice-sounding AM/FM/cassette stereo mounted just above the dual-zone climate controls. A four-CD in-dash changer is available.

The front and center bucket seats were chair-high and quite comfortable. The rear bench was habitable, but best used for cargo. The ceiling-mounted console features a single door that holds two pairs of eye glasses.

But the biggest news is the availability of power doors. A single right-side remote power door is standard, and a left power-sliding door and power liftgate are available.

Also available (but not on the test vehicle) is a removable power center console, a rear seat video system with headphone jacks and adjustable pedals.

Rear cargo capacity is good, even in the short wheelbase minivan. The rear seat is split 50/50, allowing part of it to be removed with the help of the rollers on the bottom of the seats. The rear seat also has shopping-bag holders molded into the backs. Chrysler claims these vehicles even can carry a 4x8 sheet of plywood. A pop-up cargo organizer is available to help keep things organized.

Of course, the minivan has an abundance of cupholders.

Fuel economy was good. EPA ratings were 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway, with 20 mpg returned in mixed city/highway driving.

The test vehicle started at $23,525. Options included side airbags, a roof rack, load-leveling and ride-height control, and package 25K (which included dual zone air-conditioning, power driver's seat, overhead console, a CD player, keyless entry, and miscellaneous minor trim items.) Bottom line was $27,795.

The refinement and features of this minivan are so good, one wonders why buyers pay top dollar for some of the new Asian imports. "I don't know," came the answer from William Jeanes, who I had the pleasure of meeting during lunch in New York. The former editor at both Road & Track and Car & Driver is now head honcho at Auto World Weekly.

He agreed that Chrysler's new breed was a class act, one that will maintain its dominance in the class it created.

It also made the drive in New York more pleasant, even if I don't have eyes on all sides of my head.

Chrysler Voyager
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6
Transmissions: 4-speed automatic
Tires: P215/70R15
Wheelbase: 113.3 inches
Length: 189.3 inches
Width: Not available
Curb weight: 4,057 pounds
EPA rating: 18 city, 24 highway
Test mileage: 20 mpg
Fuel type: Regular